Ferome Brown had once been one of north Minneapolis’ most notorious gang members, but when he was wrapping up a 44-month stay in federal prison, he came to a simple conclusion: He needed to be a better dad.
By the time he had served out a prison term in Virginia for dealing cocaine, the 27-year-old Brown had read thousands of books and studied nonprofit management — even as his friends continued his drug business back home in the Midwest. “I was in a totally different state going in [to prison],” he recalled. “I learned who I was as a person; I learned about what I was doing by selling this poison to my people.”
So after his release in 2001, Brown returned to Minneapolis’ north side with an announcement for everyone in his social circle: He was changing his lifestyle for good. “I wanted my kids to see somebody that was not just a drug dealer or gang banger,” he said.
He started a new career path: advising young gang members. Brown’s background gave him credibility in north Minneapolis, where young men and boys in gangs are often suspicious of outsiders, and he eventually co-founded the Urban Youth Conservation, a nonprofit that teaches ways to resolve feuds without guns.
Minneapolis leaders took notice of his approach. In 2016, an aide to former Mayor Betsy Hodges contacted Brown about a future full-time job at the city: outreach coordinator for a new “Group Violence Intervention” initiative, or GVI.
The idea was to field calls from gang members, provide one-on-one mentorship and be among the first people at deadly gang shootings to help untangle what had happened. Brown eventually accepted the job, and ever since he and other GVI staff members have helped de-escalate tension between groups on the north side — often about money, girlfriends or social media flare-ups — without involving Minneapolis police.
Project leaders believe the intervention strategy has led to a significant decrease in gang-related shootings, with the number of such incidents dropping substantially in the first year of the effort alone. Now, that success has prompted Mayor Jacob Frey to propose expanding GVI — to take it from targeting violence in north Minneapolis to also addressing gang activity in south Minneapolis.
How GVI works
Across Minneapolis’ high-crime neighborhoods, roughly 10 to 20 percent of males associate with gangs to varying degrees, city officials estimate. Boys who aren’t born into the lifestyle tend to get involved between fourth and seventh grades, according to a study of gangs in north Minneapolis.
Unlike gangs of the ’80s and ’90s, however, young men in gangs are not deeply attached to selling drugs and making income that way. Instead, relationships are often at the front and center of shootings, with social media often serving as a catalyst for conflicts.
For more than a decade, the city of Minneapolis’ health department has studied those nuances. In 2008, the city, in partnership with Hennepin County and The Minneapolis Foundation, launched “Blueprint for Action,” which outlines how community groups and public agencies outside of MPD and the criminal justice system can help combat gang violence.
The work in Minneapolis reached a turning point in May 2017, after five people were fatally shot in north Minneapolis over five months, accounting for all but one of the city’s total homicides during that time. Afterward, public health staff helped Hodges and former Chief Janeé Harteau formulated the specifics of GVI, including how they would recruit potentially violent people to city-run meetings and then connect them with social services.
Sasha Cotton, the director of the city’s recently formed Office of Violence Prevention, which oversees GVI, recalls telling gang members at the time: “We don’t want you incarcerated and don’t want you in a hospital bed, but that’s the trajectory that you’re creating for yourself.”
Gang members refer themselves or receive invitations for the project, which currently focuses only on north side groups. To identify participants, staff uses an external service that analyzes parole listings — identifying who is coming and going from jail — and crime reports from shootings in Minneapolis. With that information, staff comes up with a roster of who they think could be victims or perpetrators of gang shootings in the future.
Then, the GVI team invites the at-risk individuals and their families to a “call-in” event involving city officials, police, and crime victims.
“Everybody thinks that gangs are, ‘We want to go and be gangbangers,’ but the thing is about power, they don’t have money, they don’t have a way to get food and provide for their family — there’s lots of trauma going on in our community,” Brown said. “A lot of people like to glamorize what it’s like, but I tell them about the seriousness of it and to stay out of prison.”
By participating in the project, the young men can call Brown anytime — 24/7 — for help. Whether they feel threatened by a rival gang or tempted to invoke violence themselves, they can use the hotline to talk through what’s happening in emergency situations and hear what Brown thinks.
On an average day, Brown said he hears from 10 to 15 gang members, either via text or call. On one recent afternoon, he said he had talked to a guy who had gotten into a fight with his girlfriend; a gang member who needed help buying books for classes at MCTC; a young man who needed winter clothes for himself and his sister; and someone who was heading to the hospital.
In some extreme scenarios, Brown will travel to the callers’ location to try to resolve the problem. Most often, though, gang members use Brown’s cellphone because they need rides to safety. “I had to leave; It was a big gunfire show,” Brown recalled one man saying on the Fourth of July.
GVI staff members also connect participants with nonprofits or city departments that provide social services — ranging from employment training to substance abuse or mental health services — so that those who want to make long-term changes to their lifestyles are able to, Cotton said.
In one instance, a group of gang members signed up for GVI together, saying they had been successful selling drugs on the streets and that they were interested in doing something else for money if they could own the new business themselves. The GVI team connected them with a group that fosters entrepreneurship skills.
In severe cases, the city’s public health department covers the cost of relocating participants to avoid acts of retaliation from rival gang members and so that the men can start new lives somewhere else. Cotton recalled one client who had been shot and hospitalized but did not seek follow-up medical attention for a full year. GVI staff intervened to get him to a doctor and eventually helped him apply for disability benefits, she said.
Overall, project leaders tout the effort as one of the best strategies for mitigating gang shootings and stopping a multigenerational cycle of drugs and gun violence. During a study period last year, police documented 25 victims of gang shootings between May and September, compared with 42 during the same time window in 2017. And though staff has not finalized 2019 data, Cotton said she anticipates similar decreases in violence for the current year.
Plans for expanding program
Over the next several weeks, the Minneapolis City Council will decide how to amend Frey’s $1.6 billion 2020 budget proposal, which includes $150,000 to expand GVI to south Minneapolis, as well as an increase to MPD’s budget for 14 new police officers.
In last year’s budget cycle, the mayor proposed a 2.8 percent budget hike for MPD, a proposal that would have moved eight police officers currently in desk jobs to the streets. The idea was based on the premise that officers are often overtaxed, running from 911 call to 911 call, but the council cut the proposed increase to 2.2 percent and used that money instead to create Cotton’s Office of Violence Prevention, a one-stop shop for city-sponsored strategies for improving public safety outside of MPD. “The city has a broader role to play,” Cotton said. “Law enforcement has a responsibility of enforcing laws, but that’s not the only way we keep people safe.”
Currently, in addition to overseeing GVI, she and staff are developing a strategic plan for the new office, which, among other goals, will lay out a timeline for reducing the number of homicides among black and brown young men in Minneapolis. The office is also helping with an internal audit of all city spending on violence prevention strategies.
If the council agrees to grow GVI via a 2020 funding increase, Cotton said another task will be added to its plate: Learning clique dynamics and what provokes violence in neighborhoods that aren’t in north Minneapolis.
“There’s a lot more diversity in the way groups and gangs look in south Minneapolis,” Cotton said, referring to gangs within the area’s Native American, East African and Latino communities. “Those three pillars of community, social services and law enforcement need to be in place, but above and beyond that, it [GVI] can look very different in different parts of your city.”
The staff had spent years building relationships and recruiting participants on the north side, and that effort felt organic, she said. And though they don’t have the luxury of time for getting to know different communities in south Minneapolis, they want to build trust in the same way.
Already, the staff is trying to recruit new culturally specific nonprofits and community leaders to be a part of the office’s work; they just hired a consultant who works with Native American-led gangs, for example, and, “We’re meeting with and talking with folks in the East African community, as well, about what the needs are there and how we can be a better partner to build something,” she said.
Brown, too, is eager for GVI to expand, describing it as one of the city’s best answers for curbing violence, while also addressing systemic trauma that comes with living in poverty. “We’ll see a dynamic change in the levels of shootings,” he said with support for the intervention project. “We’ll be able to recognize how [gang members] have the right messengers to go and give the message to these guys and let them know that we have resources.”